Can postmodernism save world?

April 12, 2007|By Reza Dibadj

Contemporary political discourse is strikingly polarized: good nations vs. evil nations, welfare state vs. watchman state, free markets vs. bureaucrats, Republicans vs. Democrats. While everyone is busy trying to prove he or she is right, problems fester: geopolitical instability, increasing income disparity and impending environmental disaster, to name a few.

I have wondered for a long time whether these two phenomena are interrelated - whether the inability to look beyond simple dichotomies has gotten us into the mess we're in.

Re-reading some texts of postmodern philosophy has helped me see the connection.

Admittedly, an obscure philosophical notion such as postmodernism is a decidedly odd place to go looking for help to alleviate the world's problems. Postmodernism suffers from a bad rap. It is even a dirty word in many intellectual circles. Yet for all of its annoying jargon, postmodernism can be best understood as a movement that struggles with how to represent a messy, chaotic world where simple, reassuring stories will not suffice. Jean-Francois Lyotard offered one of the most useful insights into the term "postmodern" when he defined it as "incredulity toward meta-narratives." In other words, we should be wary of simple and seductive tales.

In many ways, postmodernist philosophers were reacting to 20th-century meta-narratives that began as supposed utopias but ended as horrors - fascism and communism, to pick two particularly troubling examples. Yet, on a less vile and more subtle stage, meta-narratives are at play today; think of the romantic notions that globalization, unregulated capital markets or military might will solve the world's problems.

Postmodernism questions these clean, reassuring abstractions. We need to stop viewing the world in terms of absolutes: "good vs. evil," "right vs. wrong." Reality is much more nuanced. If the essence of philosophical inquiry, as Michel Foucault once noted in describing Maurice Merleau-Ponty's work, is "never to consent to being completely comfortable with one's own presuppositions," we need more philosophers. The debate over whether someone's god or country or race or color or way of life is better than someone else's cannot be won. It has been tried, with disastrous results.

Where does all of this theorizing lead? Two possibilities lie ahead of us as citizens. The first is to continue to be lulled into complacency through reassuring sound-bites that spew out meta-narratives too often demonizing the "other." The second is much more time-consuming and difficult and requires us to do our own thinking. It is to engage with those with whom we disagree in dialogue to forge our own localized stories out of the discussion.

Maybe progressives should watch Fox News and conservatives should read The Nation. Real political engagement, after all, is a messy, often uncomfortable, conversation. To use a culinary analogy, we can either accept to be fed prepackaged junk food out of a vending machine, or we can choose to cook our own meals from scratch. The latter might be a hassle but it will increase life expectancy.

It might be a bit fanciful to intimate that abstruse continental philosophers - postmodernists, no less - might offer insight into the world in which we live. So be it. We'd be better off with more cooks and fewer vending machines.

Reza Dibadj is an associate professor of law at the University of San Francisco and the author of "Rescuing Regulation." His e-mail is

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